"Eritrean Trivia" by Larry Bucher

The Railroad

The Italians began to lay track out of Massawa, initially for military reasons, in 1888 — before they owned Asmara; before the colony of Eritrea was formally established. The railroad reached Asmara in 1911, Agordat in 1928 and had progressed to Biscia (35K west of Agordat) when construction halted. The British tore up the Agordat-Biscia section and transported it to recently-conquered Libya for use in repairing the Italian-built, war-damaged railways there.

The Italians had planned to extend the railroad to Tessenei on the Sudan border, thence south to Om Hager in the extreme southwest corner of Eritrea. They had vague plans of extending it on to Gondar, and even vaguer long-range plans of running it west of Lake Tana, south of Addis Abeba, and eventually reaching Mogadishu or somewhere on the Somali coast.

The narrow (95cm) gauge of the rails and the diminutive trains invited American comparisons to the Toonerville Trolley of the comic pages; the little train that now and then chugged its way past Kagnew’s back gate was derided as the “Keren Cannonball”.

The roadbed contains 30 tunnels between Massawa-Asmara; nine more between Asmara-Agordat.

The “Teleferica”

I’m not sure exactly how the Italian word should be translated; it was the name of the ropeway or cableway between Massawa-Asmara. It was dismantled for scrap in the mid-60s; later arrivals will know of it only by hearsay if that, old hands will remember it well. The towers, cables, and many of the cargo “cars” were still in place and visible along much of the Massawa road until the scrapping.

It was built in 1935-37 and functioned for only a few years. I remember the open, flatbed “cars” as being about the size of a large pickup truck bed. Some figures I found: 1500 cars, 110 meters apart, 300KG capacity per car, able to move 30 tons an hour in each direction.

In one source I read that passengers could ride for six lira from Massawa to Asmara, two lira for the reverse route. Another source says that only cargo was carried, no passengers — except when an occasional drunken westerner disregarded prohibitions and climbed in for the hell of it. I suspect the former may have been true when the Italians operated it; the latter true under the British.

The British didn’t find much use for it. It was vulnerable to sabotage, vandalism, and thievery — and not only human thievery. Baboons learned to climb up the pylons, enter the slow-moving cars, and help themselves to any edibles they fancied. The British appropriated the motors for use elsewhere and the rest of the system was left to rust.

Tract A

At about the same time the teleferica was dismantled, the three tall radio towers on Tract A also fell to the scrappers. Tract A’s other name, Radio Marina, indicates what it once was — the Italian Navy’s communication station. The towers were, at a guess, about 100 feet tall; each one had a red light on top, probably to warn off airplanes. It was said that the three red lights had served to guide many a drunken sailor back to base. (The navy barracks were on Tract A until sometime in the mid-60s.) The towers had ladders running up them, but the lowest portions had been removed. Again, it was said that the removal had been to frustrate ascents by drunken sailors.

Left-hand Drive vs. Right-hand

I read somewhere that when the Commonwealth forces entered Asmara in 1941 the first order they issued, before sunset that day, was that henceforth traffic would move on the LEFT.

When the Ethiopian government determined to switch Eritrea back to the right, in 1964 or 1965, I was in Naples, Italy. A few of our people were sent to Asmara to perform an admin inspection; when they returned they told me this story: on a navy bulletin board they had seen a notice of the impending changeover, looking very official, seeming quite legitimate, until the last sentence was read. It was approximately: “In order to give everyone ample opportunity to become accustomed to the new traffic flow, for the first 30 days it will be optional.”

A Winning Bet

I never heard of the wager actually being offered and accepted, but it used to be said that a good way to take money from a new guy was to bet him that you could show him Mussolini’s name still on prominent display in a public building.

The hypothetical new guy would have lost. The “public building” was the big cathedral downtown. Inside, at the rear of the principal chamber, was a large, bronze plaque high on the wall. It thanked, praised, and gave the names of, the patrons or benefactors who had supported construction of the church. The topmost name was S.M. (His Majesty) Vittorio Emanuele III. Just below the king, in equally large type, was S.E. (His Excellency) Benito Mussolini. Then followed, in progressively smaller type, a parcel of lesser fascist bigwigs — I remember none of them with certainty but assume they included the Governor-General of Eritrea, the Minister for Colonies, etc.


The word comes from the Ge’ez bible and means “to bring order out of chaos”. We navy types enjoyed observing that it would have been much more fitting if the army had chosen the antonym.

“Kagnew” acquired Ethiopian patriotic symbolism in the aftermath of the battle of Adwa. The story is that an Ethiopian general was shot from his saddle; his horse — named Kagnew — charged the enemy riderless and brought confusion to their ranks. (I have been able to find this information only in U.S. military sources, and considering their occasional inaccuracies it might need to be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems reasonable — although perhaps after-the-fact propaganda and a bit embroidered.) Be that as it may, the Ethiopian Imperial Bodyguard contingents sent off to the Korean war were called the Kagnew Battalions, and at about that time we chose the name for our base.

The Ethiopic pronunciation was “con-you”. In 1959-61 this was part of the early indoctrination of new arrivals. Anyone heard to say kag-new marked himself as a very new guy.

But by 1969 this had changed completely. Kag-new had prevailed. It was in universal use, even by the army’s radio and TV stations — and even by our Eritrean workers, who would scarcely presume to correct their bosses. I once sought to bring this up through the chain of command, at a time when AFRTS was seeking input from listeners, but my input was dismissed by the navy as “nit-picking”.

Maybe. I thought and still think that, having chosen a local term for our base name, we could then have had the minimal courtesy to pronounce it correctly — over the air, at any rate.

I suppose we could pass some of the blame to the Italians (or maybe to the French influence in Addis Abeba) and to that “gn” sound. Had the word been transliterated as “kanyew” or “canyew”, as an English speaker would have done, the mispronunciation would never have arisen . . .

I heard from an embassy diplomat that the cactus that flourishes on the upper slopes of the escarpment and much of the plateau is not native to the area but was imported by the Italians. I didn’t ask him his source at the time; in trying to verify it I now find (in Simoons’ Northwest Ethiopia) a professor who confirms that the plant is non-native. However he says that it “seems to have been introduced” about 1865 — which if correct would make it a little early to be credited to the Italians.

My wife would buy the cactus pears (beles) from the street vendors, run them through the blender and make an interesting breakfast juice. It will never oust orange juice from my table but it was tasty.

How many letters in the Ethiopic alphabet?

Zero. Technically there is no Ethiopic alphabet; it is, instead, a syllabary — each character representing a syllable.

O.K., that was a dirty, sneaky question. To rephrase it as it should have been: how many characters in the Ethiopic syllabary? Well . . .
276 (Alone-Stokes Short Manual of the Amharic Language)
251 (The Ethiopians, Edward Ullendorf)
182 in basic Ge’ez and
282 including additional symbols (Ethiopia, George A. Lipsky)
. . . and I’ve no doubt that I could turn up still more and different figures elsewhere if I looked longer and harder.

Why the discrepancies? Doesn’t anyone know how many there are? Well, some counters count numerals and punctuation symbols, some don’t. Some characters have become obsolete or nearly so; they are counted by some but not by others. And over the last century or two new characters have been jury-rigged to accommodate new sounds found in English and other outside languages — I know of v, th (as in the), th (as in thin) in this respect; there are surely others.

Whatever the number, it is high enough to frighten off many would-be learners. But it is not as bad as it seems. The letter T is good for illustration because its basic form is similar to English T. Move the crossbar down a bit, as you would hand-print a lower-case t, and you have the basic Ethiopic letter: te (as in Ted). Halfway down from the moved crossbar, place a short, horizontal line (or a small square, used in typeset print) on the right and you have too. Next, to the basic form add that line or square all the way down at the bottom right instead: tee. Bend the bottom half of the basic form to the left and it is tah (as in Taj Mahal). Putting a small circle on the bottom right of the basic form gives tay (as in table). A line or square on the top left produces t — either no vowel sound at all (as at the end of a word) or a minimal sound (as in tin). Finally a circle at the very top yields toh (as in toe, tow).

So instead of 200+ separate and distinct characters, the system can be viewed as some 40 or so, each with seven variations. And the variations follow a pattern of sorts: a line/square at the bottom right of a letter is generally going to indicate an “ee” sound. (Unfortunately the variations are not completely consistent, there are quite a few variances from the variations . . .)

All in all I found the alphabet, oops, syllabary, a good deal easier to fool with than either Arabic or Thai, both of which have considerably fewer characters. At my best (long since deteriorated) I had probably 95% recognition of the syllabary — any comprehension of what I was reading was very much another matter though.

I liked to toy with my knowledge in the downtown bars. I would claim to be able to read Tigrinya. This would be scoffed of course, so I would find the appropriate bottle and slowly and hesitantly sound out “Ko-ka-ko-la” and gloat. (That ploy will work in many another country.) When I was hooted down I would locate another bottle and repeat my performance with “birra”, “Melotti”, and “Asmara”. I would still be considered a fraud and eventually someone would challenge me with a newspaper or some such written material. I would at first simulate embarrassment, an “Oh, oh, the game is up, I’ve been exposed” manner, and try to evade the test, but at some point I would take the paper, pretend to be puzzled by it, then slowly, running my finger along a line, start to rattle off the characters in a low, mumbling voice. My accent must have been horrible and my mispronunciations many, and I understood only about one percent of what I was “reading”, but in the wake of the phony buildup my performance was usually sufficient to provoke a fair degree of astonishment.

Flies . . . and Barflies

Remember the flies? For speed, maneuverability, evasive action, and annoyance factor, they surpassed all flies of my previous (and subsequent) acquaintance. My ongoing war with them developed into another method of barroom agitation.

Lacking a swatter of course, I would clap my hands together above a resting fly, hoping that it would flee directly into the impact zone. Or, I would swipe rapidly with cupped hand, hoping to imprison the fly in my fist. I had little success but scored an occasional casualty. I learned rather early that these actions were quite upsetting to Eritreans. Getting fly guts on one’s skin was disgusting, yucky.

I was much criticized but did not reform. My intolerance for impertinent insects outweighed my regard for local sensibilities. And later I developed a refinement: after a failed effort I would examine my empty palm, smile with satisfaction, and simulate popping a corpse into my mouth with relish.

If fly guts on the skin were gross, squashed flies as edibles were incomparably gross. The reactions mostly beggar description but twice, at least, I sent girls racing, retching, for the rest room.

Asmara Neighborhoods

Different sections of the town had their own names. I think most ex-Asmarans will recall Ghezzabanda — which I always thought of as Casabianca (white house) until I came across the correct spelling. It was the higher area on the south side of town, up above the flights of stairs with water basins between them. (Water basins, was it, or flower beds? Memory fails. Whatever.)

Gaggiret was the area near Tract A, Godaif was nearby. Campo Polo — downhill from Kagnew’s main gate and to the right — was where nearly all expatriates lived in 1993-95. (Perhaps there was a polo ground there at some earlier time? During the British occupation?) There are surely other neighborhood names which I never knew or have forgotten.

In “Eritrea on the Eve”, Sylvia Pankhurst lists the nine quarters of the “native town”: Abba Shiaul, Gheza Bernahou, another Gheza Banda, Gheza Canisha, Haddis Addi, Edaga Arbi, Caravan Serraglio, Accria, and Mercato.

Of these, Abba Shiaul is of particular significance. The initial “A” is lightly pronounced, nearly inaudible to western ears. To Americans (and before us, to the British?) the name sounded like “Bashawl” — and hence what we knew as “the bosh”. (I can’t swear that this is the derivation but I’m pretty confident of it.)

I always thought the army’s nighttime off-limits regulations regarding these areas were somewhat ridiculous, issued more in order to look military, to have a regulation for the sake of having one, rather than from any real necessity or danger. I never went into the bosh at night nor wished to, but, had I done so, I would have felt safer and less apprehensive there than I would have in most of downtown at the same hour.

One boundary of the defined off-limits area ran along an S-curved street with a wide median strip. At one point a bar was located right on the median itself. I sat therein one night with a friend, marveling at the fact that while sitting on one side of the barroom we were quite legal but if we moved to the other side we would be violating an order.

Asmara itself derives from “arbate asmara”, “they united the four [villages]”, according to the “Did you know?” sector of the website. Somewhere else I’ve read that Asmara means “field of flowers”, but I can’t relocate the reference. Richard Greenfield in Vol. VI #4 of the Ethiopian Observer says that it means “good pasture”. I’ve no idea which, if any, of the three is correct, but if I had to bet I’d put my money on the website version.

But how is it that at least three different derivations came to be recorded? My guess is that Asmara had existed for many centuries as a small village, that the original meaning became obscured by time, and that Eritreans, when questioned by outsiders, were embarrassed to confess lack of knowledge and offered whatever guess popped into their heads.

Larry Bucher
162 West Pine St
Spearfish SD 57783-8632


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